The Belfry (PG)
I’d known Coon since the second grade. The kids called him that because he and his pa hunted coon. His parents owned the farm just down from the school house. I lived three farms down, and passed his place on the way to school. I guess that’s why we became friends. Good friends.
Ma didn’t like when Coon and I disappeared from sunup to sundown, day after day in the summer or on Saturdays during the school year. She feared something horrible would happen. Lucky for me, she was too busy with my little twin sisters to bother with much more than a “As long as you get your morning chores done.”
And I have to say, there are things that happened she is better off not knowing about, such as the time when Coon saved my life. And the time when … I didn’t save his.
I almost drowned in Knuckle Creek two springs ago. It was my fault. We were hiking the shoreline when I decided to stop and toss a stick out onto the ice. Just as I threw it, the tip of the stick snagged Coon’s stocking cap and both the stick and the cap landed on the ice. Coon was against the idea of me walking out on the ice. He said he was more than willing to take a good cussing from his pa rather than have one of us fall in and freeze to death.
But I wouldn’t listen.
Coon followed me as I edged my way onto the ice, with a branch in hand, to hopefully reach his cap and fling it to shore. After a couple steps, I decided I should check the ice first. So I slid my foot out a ways. Put weight on it to test it. Then moved forward. Slid the same foot out again. And down I went.
My feet shot through the ice and into the darkness. The freezing cold water snatched my breath instantly as it collapsed my clothes tight to my body. I flung my hands out to my sides to catch myself, but the current pulled at my newly weighted pant legs. My head went under, but I shot back to the surface by flailing my arms. Water splashed everywhere, and got into my mouth and I began to choke.
What seemed like ten minutes of fighting for my life, might have only been ten seconds.
But, in those seconds, I still remember the thoughts that passed through my head. I really thought I was a goner. What was Ma going to say? Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered to me—I’d a been dead. But she really would have been sad. Pa, too, I suppose. And since my sisters were probably too young to care, the only other person I thought might be sad was Coon, seeing as we were more akin to brothers an’ all.
Still, I continued to thrash about the small hole, my arms feeling more and more like lead as my head submerged again. Something vice-like began to tear at me inside my chest as panic, real panic now, began to set in. I burst up through the water, my whole body numbed and beginning to shut down in that terrible, icy cold. I tried to scream, but only coughed as I choked on more water.
That’s when I felt myself being pulled backward through the water, and then up onto the ice.
I still don’t know how Coon managed to pull me out.
If I wouldn’t have been so cold and in shock, I probably would have given him a big hug. Instead, we ran and stumbled to his place where I hid in the hay barn until we were able to dry my clothes enough so I could sneak back into my house without being noticed.
I remember telling him over and over that he saved my life. He just laughed and said that it wasn’t even deep in that part of the creek and I could’ve crawled out if I just would’ve tried. For the record, I don’t remember my feet hitting bottom. And I’ll never forget him for what he did that day, and for the brother he was.
It makes me feel that much worse about what happened to him.
* * * * *
“Schools almost out,” Coon exclaimed.
“Yeah, and ...?” I questioned, knowing there was more to follow.
Coon reached up and pinched at his chin. It was a smooth chin. He was much too young to grow anything that might be called facial hair. His brown eyes gazed at the bright blue sky as we walked. “And, Pa says this will probably be the last year for the school. Next year, they’ll be sending us to town.”
“They’re closing it?” our friend, Jerry, quickly asked.
“Yeah, didn’t you hear?” I replied, then lightly nudged Coon in the gut with my elbow. We both laughed.
Jerry looked over at me, then at Coon. “Ah, knock it off.”
I couldn’t let it go. “Well, they’ve been talking about it all spring at church, and at school. Where you been?”
Jerry started to say something.
Coon butted in. “Well, it’s given me an idear.”
I chuckled at Coon’s pronunciation of the word ‘idea.’ I swear he did it on purpose. Either way, it always made me laugh, partly because of how it sounded when he said it, and partly because of the nervous pit that I would get in my stomach right after. When he said ‘idear,’ it meant he was cooking up some cock-a-doodle scheme—and somehow I'd be involved.
“Like what?” I asked as I was bending over to pick up a handful of rocks from the edge of the road.
The other boys stopped, too. Jerry bent over and picked up a rock. Coon was still deep in thought. I threw a rock at the tin road sign that identified a curve in the road. Missed. Then threw another. That one missed, too.
“Next Monday is our last day at this school, forever. And I’m thinking we ought to do something to commiserate it.” Coon finished his sentence then lowered his eyes toward Jerry and me. Both of us were standing there listening to what he had to say.
“To commessor-what?” Jerry asked.
“Go out with a bang,” I said, specifically to Jerry, and threw the rest of my rocks straight up in the air as if they were exploding fireworks.
“Yeah. You got it, Rat. You got it,” Coon yelled out, ducking from the incoming rocks at the same time. Then he let out a big ‘woo-hoo’ and began to laugh.
I laughed along, and eventually Jerry did, too.
And in case you’re wondering, Rat is my nickname. My real name is Rathorn, named after my great-grandfather, but most everyone, even my parents, call me Rat. It’s just easier to say.
“I want to steal the school’s bell,” Coon blurted out.
All the laughing suddenly stopped.
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